Grant Provided Local Teachers With More Mental Health Training

BERLIN –  Officials at Stephen Decatur Middle School believe increased training will help teachers accommodate students’ growing mental health needs.

Principal Lynne Barton shared her school’s approach to better serving the rising number of students dealing with mental health concerns at a meeting of the Worcester County Board of Education last week.

“Our objective was to increase our teachers’ capacity to deal with children that had mental health issues, to focus and better understand their academic and social and emotional needs,” Barton said.

According to Barton, during the 2017-2018 school year, 14 students had no fixed address, 21 students underwent emergency mental health evaluations,

14 students had a deceased parent, 18 students had an incarcerated parent and two students were in foster care. Sixty-five students were in school based counseling through the health department while nine students were in school based counseling with a therapist from Chesapeake Health Care Services.

“These are alarming numbers for us,” Barton said.

She said that because mental health concerns among Stephen Decatur Middle students had increased, the school applied for a grant from the Humphreys Foundation. With the $10,000 grant, the school engaged the Sheppard Pratt Health System to provide professional development each month to teachers.

“This isn’t in the teachers’ toolbox to deal with these kinds of issues,” Barton said.

During the monthly Sheppard Pratt sessions, teachers were able to talk about new strategies and develop plans for a team approach to addressing mental health situations. Teacher Kate Lutz said educators learned the best ways to frame conversations and how to deal with a pending crisis in the middle of a classroom of students, among other things. She said learning to lean on other teachers when necessary had been a key step in the process.

“It really was a team approach,” she said.

Barton said that data from the 2018-2019 school year showed that Stephen Decatur Middle School students continued to face mental health challenges.

“It’s not going away,” she said.

Because of that, the school will continue offering professional development opportunities aimed at increasing teachers’ capacity for addressing students’ mental health needs. Barton said the school would be working with the Transformation Education Institute, a nonprofit based in Baltimore that offers presentations and workshops.

“We’re going to be sending teachers to conferences as much as we can,” Barton said.

Bill Gordy, president of the school board, acknowledged the challenges teachers faced.

“It’s no secret that schools are being asked to absorb more responsibility for more issues outside of the traditional education,” he said.

When he asked if the initiative was supported by teachers, Lutz said there wasn’t 100% buy-in yet but that it was getting closer.

“I think it’s more about their level of comfort,” she said. “We’re asking them to do things they haven’t done before.”

Barton agreed and said that the more teachers learned about mental health the better they’d be able to deal with situations in their classrooms.

“I think giving them the tools and the strategies really helps,” she said.

About The Author: Charlene Sharpe

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Charlene Sharpe has been with The Dispatch since 2014. A graduate of Stephen Decatur High School and the University of Richmond, she spent seven years with the Delmarva Media Group before joining the team at The Dispatch.